ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Monday, August 4, 2014

BV London Pub of the Year 2013-14 - part four

Alrighty then, it's the final three contenders in this year's Pub of the Year competition. But first, a very brief Q&A following a couple of questions readers have been asking me. Pfft. Readers, eh? Eh...?

Q: Is any pub ever going to score the full 10 points? 

A: Well, the theoretical maximum is actually nine points, and this has been the case since the competition began (it also applies, in a looser sense, to my restaurant reviews - I'm a big fan of the 9* system). As to whether any pub could pick up a perfect score, it's certainly possible, and combining aspects from two of the finalists should give a hefty fucking clue as to how this might be achieved. When it happens, it'll happen.

Q: Why limit the bonus points to 2?

A: Quite simply, because if I allowed pubs to pick up bonuses for everything good about them, they could build up a tally beyond the maximum, and pubs which had a few nice features but average or even piss-poor could theoretically score highly. It's the same reason why food, even supertasty Zeus-food is only worth between -1 and 1 points. This is a pub competition and the scoring system is weighted so that the quality and range of real beer is by far the most important - though not always decisive - factor.

Now on to the final three pubs...

Rake, Borough

It's a welcome return to the competition for one of London's smallest bars - perhaps surprisingly, the sole representative of the Borough area.

Tucked away on a little backstreet behind Borough Market yet known to just about everyone on the craft beer scene, the Rake has a unique, cosmopolitian charm that simply doesn't seem to exist anywhere else in London.

Quality of real ale: I've noticed a trend emerging over the last couple of years in that places which don't purport to specialise in cask ale tend to serve it in better condition than places that do - like the Market Porter just around the corner from here, which hasn't made the cut this time. The ale here turns over very quickly with casks often lasting just one day, so no excuse for it not being in perfect condition.

I've yet to have a poor quality pint in here, and while it could be just a tad cooler, I have to give the place the full 3 points. 'No crap on tap' is their policy and they've delivered on it!

An awesome view (apart from the ladies facilities!)
An awesome view (apart from the ladies facilities!)
Range of real ale: With only three handpumps in operation, the Rake is never going to offer the choice of a beer festival (except when they're hosting one of their beer festivals, obviously!) But with the beers changing daily and sourced from all over the country (and sometimes even overseas) they offer about as much choice as a pub with three handpumps can. Further beers are sometimes available on cellar runs, and while you can't always be guaranteed a specific style, they put some thought into complementing the keg range. It's a 2, which works out at an impressive 6.66666666666666recurring per pump!

Food: Fairly obviously the Rake doesn't have a kitchen - if it did, there wouldn't be room for the pub!

Bonus points: The kitchen deficiency doesn't mean you can't have a tasty snack here, and a portion of beer sticks (basically non-slimy, 'craft' pepperami) is a delicious spicy accompaniment to a hoppy pale ale. At £5 for a portion of four, they might seem a tad on the expensive side, but, trust me, they're super-addictive. Like cured pork crack.

So that's a point for the snackery, and the range of bottled and keg beers are worth another. I can't think of any reason to take points off the Rake, so it's a maximum 2.


Old Fountain, Islington

Located just north of Old Street tube station, the Old Fountain is a pub I've been to a few times over the years and a couple of people have been banging on at me to include it in the competition. I have to admit, I've picked up some unusual beers in there and had some enjoyable evenings, so, well, why not chuck it in?

The trouble is, I think it's actually going downhill at the worst possible time - when the competition is getting better and better - and here's why:

Quality of real ale: I've never understood the logic behind 'the exception that proves the rule', but I'm aware of the air of truism about it. And the Old Fountain is a case in point.

While most pubs with extensive ranges of 'craft keg' also seem to be serving their cask beer better than anybody else, my view is that the quality of real ale at the Old Fountain has, sadly, declined over the last few months, during which time they've added extra keg lines and become a bit more 'crafty'. I've had some decent pints here, but I've also suffered the insipid, lifeless soup that gives cask beer a bad name. Not exactly 'off', but completely uninspiring. Based on the last six months I'd be scoring this place a zero. For the survey period as a whole, they get a 1 and I'll be keeping a close eye on the situation.

The old beer board at the Old Fountain
The old beer board at the Old Fountain
Range of real ale: Up to eight available, though on recent visits this has been more like six, with the numbers made up by extra keg lines - given the above this isn't necessarily a bad thing though.

Breweries featured are a mix of the current fashionable names (Magic Rock, Arbor, Mallinson's) and the London micros, though you do sometimes see the bigger brands here. Even the dreaded London Pride, which sits uneasily alongside, say, Siren craft. A broad range of styles and strengths are represented and it's enough to regularly attract the tickers. 2 points.

Food: It's not unpleasant, but it's really nothing remotely special - the open kitchen area hints at a earlier era when food was perhaps a bigger part of what they do. Their Scotch eggs are proper, with a nice, irregular shape, though seasoning is a little lacking. Decent chips. No points though.

Bonus points: Bloody hell, it's like they don't want to win! Such is the profligacy with which the Old Fountain throw away points. This time it's the homemade mixed spicy nuts. Delicious. Except that they don't do them any more, and thus can't earn a point. They can earn a point for their keg range, and it's a good place to drink London craft keg (e.g. Beavertown, Five points, Kernel) at relatively reasonable prices.

However, the toilet facilities, possibly of a certain vintage, are designed in a strange way that, without going into too much detail, often seems to cause accidents. Take off a point for that and you're left with a big, round 0.

Cask, Pimlico

Arguably the place where London's Craft Beer revolution all began, the Cask Pub & Kitchen has been around for over five years now - the special brews for the 5th birthday bash were fucking awesome, especially Thornbridge 'Slezak'  - but this is it's first appearance in the BV PotY.

As you probably know, it's a sister and forerunner to the Craft Beer Company chain. I've no idea why they haven't just rebranded this branch in red livery like the rest of them as they expanded (possibly some boring legal/contractual reason?) but for now it's still green, and it's still called the Cask.

I've reviewed the place twice, focussing on the food, and was fairly scathing both times. But let's not dwell on that.

A beer at the Cask called 'Cask' - on keg!
A beer at the Cask called 'Cask' - on keg!
Quality of real ale: If I had to come up with one thing that differentiates the Cask from the newer, Craft Beer Co-branded pubs, it might be that the beer isn't quite as good. It's still brilliant, of course, but sometimes you just know that things can be better. That Thornbridge beer I just mentioned, for example. I had it in the Craft Clerkenwell a few days later and it was even better than it was here. Tough decision, but it's a 2 rather than a max.

Range of real ale: With 10 cask beers on at any time, you'll find a similar range to the Islington and Clapham CBCos, and it can be disappointing to see the same beers on here. That said, it's miles better than anything else in the area and judged on it's own merits it deserves 2 points. If you're a ticker and you've just been to all the Craft Beer Companies in London, you won't be impressed, however.

Food: Provided by Forty burgers. As I said, let's not dwell on that...

Bonus points: Blah blah blah, you know the score. Good keg and bottled beer. But beyond this, it's hard to find too much that makes the Cask stand out in a hugely competitive market.

I like this pub - you'll probably like it too - but unless you're in the Victoria or Pimlico area, what's the incentive to go here rather than one of it's scarlet-clad brethren? That's the question.

And so, that wraps up the 12 contenders in this year's Pub of the Year competition. The Top 5 will be revealed sometime in mid-August, following the GBBF. In the meantime, just go out and drink some good beer. Go, go, go!

Where to find it...

The Rake
14a Winchester walk,
Borough Market,
SE1 9AG (map)

Old Fountain
3 Baldwin street,
EC1V 9NU (map)

Cask Pub & Kitchen
6 Charlwood street,
SW1V 2EE (map)


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